Mar 122007
 

I’m a little surprised R.E.M. doesn’t seem to get its props from the general RTH community. They have (well, had) a driving, melodic rhythm section; a wankery-eschewing guitarist with (judging from interviews) an encyclopedic knowledge of rock; and an eccentric lead singer who pushed them into new territory. They’re kinda like XTC in that regard.

Sure, their brand of jangly college rock became a cul de sac thanks to lesser lights. And yes, their preachy brand of political gesture sure can grate. But – of their early work — I submit that Murmur is a still-intriguing bit of mystery with genuninely innovative production, and Reckoning shows that they dial down production quirks and still make interesting music.

So what’s the deal? Their sound has aged much better than most of their ‘80s-era brethren. Is it Michael Stipe’s androgyny? Isn’t that taking RTH’s pro-wrestling inclinations a little too far?

At the very least, please watch the above clip and tell me that’s not a great performance of a great song!

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  21 Responses to “Where Do You Stand on R.E.M.”

  1. Mr. Moderator

    Along with a multitude of “pro-wrestling” beefs, as you put it, my main beef with the band is that I have found their music boring and rarely with a rhythmic thrust and point of view. There’s much they do that’s “nice,” and even when they do something that’s musically more up my alley, they tend to ruin it for me in some way, often thanks to a lack of gripping guitar solo and/or Stipe and Mills falling in love with some cute call-and-response device. I like a broader range of music than I’m often thought of as liking, but if a band demonstrates no ability to get into a streetfight, then it’s got to win me over with tremendous melodies and arrangements. I mean, The Zombies aren’t exactly street-fighting men, but they’ve got enough subtle delights to keep me hooked. REM at their best usually sounds like The Byrds minus the hooks of their hit singles – and even minus lyrics I care much about.

    That said, a few things have turned my head around over the years to make me feel a little better about this band and to help me understand why they belong in this silly RnRHoF. Perhaps I’ll reflect on these feelings tonight.

  2. My only problem with REM is that they haven’t released an interesting record in over a decade. I have no beef at all with their ’82-’94 output, and indeed consider it one of the chief touchstones of its era. But they lost me with NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI and haven’t gotten me back yet.

  3. Mr. Moderator

    Re: the clip
    That was a great performance of a great song. One MAJOR beef from my street-fightin’, pro-wrestlin’ perspective: Could not at least one of the three front guys have spread his legs out more than 6 inches?

    Man, my need for a firm, wide-legged stance from guitaristis and singers really taps into the psychological hell I went through as a child. I criticize those who hop about on stage as if their ankles are bound by a small, strong rubber band, but as I was watching Lennon and company do “Yer Blues” on The Rock ‘n Roll Circus the other day, I almost started tearing up at his characteristic strong, wide-legged stance. How I’ve always longed to have such a stance. Oh, the man I would be! I sense Lennon had similar issues in developing his stance, and for these reasons I may have to rig the upcoming Fantasy League draft in my favor.:)

  4. saturnismine

    agreed w/ the 48 regarding ’94 as a general cutoff date for my interest in r.e.m.

    however, i must admit to being less diligent. while i continued to check on their releases up ’til about ’94, i really don’t like much that they’ve made past ‘green’ (and even this only contained a few songs i still like).

    something about stipe’s flailing arms in the “losing my religion video” … the ubiquity of that song … its accordian / mandolin and polish … i just couldn’t go there.

    stipe has since turned up the artiness, the treacle, and the p.c. thuggishness to volumes i can’t tolerate.

    this and the loss of buck’s jangle guitar, and their earlier penchant for an american 60s garage rock meant that we parted ways.

    to me, the sequence from chronic town, murmur, reckoning, and fables is a nice chapter in their careers and i like the last album very much. when they began to talk about that album as if it was their worst, i knew we’d part ways soon enough.

    art

  5. A rather fascinating R.E.M. tidbit from nme.com

    And the original line-up have recorded their first song together since 1996, a cover of John Lennon’s ‘#9 Dream’ for Amnesty International.

    It will be available as a download from tomorrow (March 13) from amnesty.org/noise.

  6. What Mills and Buck did in that clip was take the wide-legged stance and go vertical with it: front-to-back rather than side-to-side. . It’s a decent-enough adaptation, usually used when you’re 1) playing a fast song and/or 2) nervous as hell. I reckon playing “Radio Free Europe” on your first national-TV appearance makes them 2-for-2 there.

    And if it helps any with the macho points, Buck in those years reportedly got more you-know-what than a you-know-what.

    As for my personal relationship with REM, I’m going with Art’s basic analysis, but I’m going with Green as the shark-jumping point They just don’t rock in the traditional sense, and they sounded silly trying. There’ve been some good songs here and there since (much of Automatic), but if they’d broken up before Green, I’d remember them more fondly.

  7. Pretty lame Buck jump on the break, though, I must admit. Surely he didn’t really have to cue it. Show confidence! HIT that break! KNOW your band is going to hit it with you!

  8. trolleyvox

    Definite shark jumping on Green. Don’t even get me started on Automatic for the Birds. Chronic Town through Fables, though, one of the best live bands on the planet, and some great records (which may have diminished in my pantheon by sheer over-listening). Plus I basically learned guitar copping Pete Buck licks.

  9. mockcarr

    All you can do is dream Mod, you will be lucky to get Sean Lennon by the time you draft!

    Good performance but nothing memorable. I’m pretty much with Art and Rick about the timeline, I like a LOT up through Life’s Rich Pageant and don’t know as much about Green, because I think Document’s production and stridency turned me off. Someone gave me Monster as a present, that was the last real shot I gave them and it didn’t move me to go further to fill in the last 20 years. Their sales seemed to be doing fine without me.

    I think besides the Rickenbackerage, REM wasn’t really all that Byrdsy. The bass and drums show some seventies influence, and do not sound anachronistic. There are no elaborate harmonies. There’s a sprinkling of piano that I don’t remember much of in the first few Byrds albums the guitar sound targets.

    Maybe a good band can only last as long as a good sitcom. Adding Peter Holsapple to your stage show is a bit like adding Oliver to the Brady Bunch. It’s age-old, was little Ricky ever funny on I Love Lucy? It’s like you may be willing to suffer a lot of cast changes on MASH, after all, people die in a war and you’ve already swallowed that their Korean War seems to be about the Vietnam War, but once Hot Lips is sympathetic, and Klinger’s out of the dress, screw it.

    Fritz has always hated REM, and is now just using a specious look argument to bolster his claim. He has shown a grudging respect for certain songs of theirs, but I don’t think Stipe wearing a codpiece and a Twisted Sister wig would change things.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    Townsman Mockcarr, the Holsapple-in-REM/Oliver-on-the-Brady Bunch analogy may be in need of a future Glossary entry:

    Oliver: [An add-on musician to a band that’s “matured”/jumped the shark…see Holsapple…] Townspeople, feel free to flesh out this definition. I think we could use a term like this in our rock discussions.

  11. Oliver: [An add-on musician to a band that’s “matured”/jumped the shark…see Holsapple…] Townspeople, feel free to flesh out this definition. I think we could use a term like this in our rock discussions.

    An Oliver may not be a full-time member of a band; he/she should be tour-only personnel, though a vague “additional musician” credit on the band’s CD is acceptable.

  12. mwall

    I like REM just fine–the first several albums, then a few songs–without loving them. There’s a textural thinness about the first two records that gets on my nerves a little, and may be the reason that Fables is my favorite, since while the tunes are somewhat murkier, the music feels more three-dimensional, “thick.”

  13. I felt the whole band had a felt strip applied to its energy, and I was troubled by what they were holding back. Then, Stipe was unleashed, and his monkey boy dances and pained phrasing were not a pretty site. Then they opened Peter Buck’s cage, and out came bad Neil Young-inspired power riffage and the mandolin!

    This is Mr. Mod from the other REM thread, and it says what I said better than I said it. Except that I was intrigued by what they were holding back. I was also intrigued by the fact that they were holding back in the first place. But starting with Green we found out what they were holding back, and it wasn’t much.

  14. Mr. Moderator

    Interesting, Rick, that you were looking forward to the unleashing of what was being held back. I’m sure I’ve felt that way about some bands. I’ll have to think about which bands, and more importantly, I’ll have to think about when these bands have unleashed their inner demons, or whatever, and I’ve liked the results. For some reason, I keep wondering if Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album is a sort of “letting go” (not by rocking out, but by dropping a part of his mask) for Dylan, and I really do like the results. With Dylan, however, who knows when he’s got a mask under a mask.

    How ’bout the rest of you? Have you ever a) anticipated a band’s coming out of its emotional/musical closet and b) loved the results?

  15. How ’bout the rest of you? Have you ever a) anticipated a band’s coming out of its emotional/musical closet and b) loved the results?

    For some reason, the band that’s coming to mind is Throwing Muses. In retrospect, what I really like about their early records is how tightly wound and repressed they are. (To tie this into another thread, note how rarely you hear a cymbal on any TM album through HUNKPAPA.) They started losing this quality around the time of THE REAL RAMONA, and I personally started losing interest around then as well. I’m happy that Kristin Hersh is apparently no longer, to use the medical term, batshit crazy but I can’t help but feel like there was an unfortunate trade-off in her music.

    Similarly, Squeeze went to hell after Chris Difford stopped drinking. Again, glad for the man himself, but it had a deleterious effect on his muse.

  16. general slocum

    I think the Byrds comparison isn’t about arrangements and specific sounds, but more about feel. A lot of REM, both early and later on, tends to wash over the ears with indistinct harmonies jangle-rhythm guitars blurring the pulse. And melodies that are weaker than the Byrds, but seem in line with the Byrds’ floaty and directionless, if pretty, melodies. They don’t contain those vocal parts, but they would lend themselves particularly well to same. I remember seeing Vic Chestnutt at the Khyber years ago and thinking what a cheap imitation of him Stipe was doing. I’ve mentioned before my Dream Sartre’s “No Exit” League team: Stipe, Bono, and Sting. Stipe’s self-objectification shifted into high gear when he came out, and he’s got a bit of wierd Silence of the Lambs guy in the basement vibe working. It isn’t a question to me of what kinds of people fill the other side of the bed, but what culture people aspire toward, and he does seem to be straining toward some Tallulah Bankhead/Ghandi abomination. I am not homophobic in the least, rather I think this is one of those liberations of a band’s formerly hidden aspects. But their music left me cold long before he came out. That said, he was instrumental in getting Flamehead signed, and was very nice to us about all of that, and I will only put this honest dis in perspective by pointing out that I completely contained all urges to discuss how tiny he is when I met him.

    I haven’t liked an REM song in a long time, but they don’t actively annoy me. Over the decades, I feel as though all of punk rock and its related styles were one 55 gallon drum of water dumped down a hill. At first everything is rushing out with such conviction and excitement – and thirty years on, it’s so spread out into far-flung trickles that any one of them can be fascinating, but there’s too much time to analyze and ponder, by both audience and band alike.

  17. Mr. Moderator

    General Slocum wrote:

    Over the decades, I feel as though all of punk rock and its related styles were one 55 gallon drum of water dumped down a hill. At first everything is rushing out with such conviction and excitement – and thirty years on, it’s so spread out into far-flung trickles that any one of them can be fascinating, but there’s too much time to analyze and ponder, by both audience and band alike.

    Well, it’s a good thing we’ve had all that time if it leads to prose like this. Are you reading this stuff, snarky 2-lines-and-a-link blogs out there? Do you see how far apart our feet are spread here in the Hall? Back to the show…

  18. I was an R.E.M. devotee through “Green” and while I continued buying their albums until “Up”, they had already started losing me. The thing that soured me was that they just started to get dull, something I hadn’t expected. I was the perfect age for them in 1984, I was in college, working on college radio when they were the kings of that genre. In addition to loving (still) their first 5 or so albums (and a sprinkling of subsequent tracks), I also credit R.E.M. with turning me on to bands like Big Star, The Byrds, Velvet Underground, and others. These were bands that I knew something about, but them namechecking an act sometimes caused me to dig into other artists deeper than I had previously considered doing. And I’m so glad that that happened. I saw R.E.M. live many times in that time period and really loved their shows. Once I realized that I bought “Up” and only listened to it one time, I realized that I was buying their albums out of habit rather than through any real excitement anymore. (I ran into this very same thing with Elvis Costello from time to time, as well as with a few others). I don’t want them to keep making “Reckoning” or “Document” over and over, but I just wish they’d stop being so dull.

  19. sammymaudlin

    I’m a died in the wool Chronic Town-Reckoning fan. Hardline after that with the exception of Dead Letter Office. For those you who think REM takes themselves too seriously, Dead Letter Office is a hoot with some great covers and the Chronic Town EP to boot which contains pretty darn close to my favorite tunes they ever recorded.

    Speaking of Dead Letter Office- does anyone have the god damn Import w/bonus tracks? It has an acoustic Gardening At Night that I’ve never heard? Is it worth it? Maybe I can download the bonus trax from iTunes… probably not.

  20. REM stinks. They had a few mildly interesting songs when I was in grade school(the late 80’s) just like that other college band, U2. The fact that those 2 bands were the biggest rock acts of the 90’s, arena tours and what not, just goes to show you that what is widely known as good is not anything I’m into.

  21. I lost interest in R.E.M. for a number of years. I recently listened to “Automatic For The People” in a friend’s car and was quite impressed. After reading several positive reviews on their new album “Accelerate,” I took a gamble and was also pleasantly surprised. I think that bands like R.E.M. and U2 are in an unfortunate place since their albums will probably be never judged on their own merit. “Automatic,” I think, is considered to be a good record by critics and fans, I’m just wondering how it would have been received if it was the first record of an unknown band.

 
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